With the all-star fun and games out of the way, the Washington Capitals can concentrate on the task at hand, which is a stretch drive toward their first postseason play.

Closest at hand is Thursday's game with the New York Islanders (WDCA-TV-20), a showdown that will determine second place in the Patrick Division.

The Islanders and Capitals are tied with 67 points, 10 behind the Philadelphia Flyers.

"The question people keep asking me is, did anybody think we would be that good at the all-star break?" said Rod Langway, Washington's lone representative on the Prince of Wales squad.

"Everybody wants to know how we can be (tied for) second place. I'm ready for this one."

Langway, slightly crestfallen because he had been the defenseman beaten on one of Wayne Gretzky's four goals Tuesday night, spent little time dwelling on that fact. "We'll play them, hopefully the same way we did when we beat them, 5-1," he said, referring to Washington's Dec. 23 win over the Islanders in the Coliseum.

The Capitals have a 2-1-1 record against the Islanders this season.

"I know they're playing pretty well," said Capitals Coach Bryan Murray. "I'm going to take home the tape of (the Islanders) Saturday game and look at it tonight. I have seen a bit of a couple games they've played, and they seem to be going pretty good."

Murray candidly admits he did not anticipate his club's being tied with the Islanders at this point in the season. "I thought the Islanders would be first and maybe we'd be fighting Philadelphia," he said. "But in the early part of the year, our goals, ambitions, were not as high as they are now. Then we were so concerned about making the playoffs, we were thinking, hoping to be about .500."

Now the Capitals are hoping to climb over the Islanders. "This'll settle it," Langway said, looking amused. "On Saturday, I heard they had a couple bad breaks (in a 4-2 loss to Minnesota) and it was in the net."

Murray doesn't necessarily agree that the Islanders are backsliding this year.

"I think maybe it's gotten to the point where a couple young players on their third and fourth lines haven't done as much as they had hoped," he said. "Maybe they expected more from (Brent) Sutter, (Greg) Gilbert, young guys."

What will the Capitals do differently against the Islanders? "I hope not a lot," Murray said. "Our concern last time was being responsible defensively and not being outnumbered. If we do the same, we'll win again, 5-1."